Somebody said we were allowed to think out loud. Pardon the mess.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Rythmn out of the Blue

Dr. David Suzuki
...The human brain was the key to our survival. It endowed us with curiosity, inventiveness and a massive memory. The French Nobel laureate, Francois Jacob, says the human brain has an inbuilt need for order. We find chaos frightening and there is an innate tendency to try to organize our observations and speculations so it all makes sense. We recognized patterns, cycles and rhythms in nature - day and night, seasons, tides, lunar cycles, movement of stars, animal migration, plant succession - and that knowledge gave us some predictive capacity that was useful.

The human brain invented an amazing concept - a future. Because we had a notion of future, we (I believe uniquely among all animals) recognized that we could deliberately choose a path into the future. We understood causal relations ("If I do this, this will happen, if I don't do that, something else might occur.") and deliberately chose, from a number of options, the kind of future we were heading for. And it worked. It got us to where we are....
Very cool series, pointed out by Creative Generalist. Partstwo and three.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Spooky Action: Seldom updated, often re-read

Mike DeWitt is a guy who needs a kick in the ass. He writes such good stuff, then gets taken prisoner by work for 6 months at a stretch. (Disclaimer: We chat from time to time, but I'm serious, this is not blogrolling.) This here post alone will sort the boyz from the men, girlz from the women on an executive mangement team. And - gasp - it's fun to read.

Spooky Action Predicts: Nick Carr has your number! (.8 probability)

If you’re in IT management or consulting, your blood pressure is now 40 points higher than before you got here. If you’re a CEO/CFO/CXO whose span of control includes IT, you may have one of those wry, one-corner-of-your-mouth-turned-up smiles on your face. If you’re none of the above, a) Hi Mom kids!, or b) thanks for stopping by randomly; I hope I make it worth your while....

Funniest email of the year

From one of my partners today:

... this WOULD NOT, DOES NOT APPEAL TO ME. Not in a boat, not with a goat (but more interesting), not here or there, not on a log, not on a blog...
Small business: too busy for business. But not for Fool's Gold.

Funny thing about the early, way-early prospectors in the American West. They wrote home exclaiming "Gold! It's just laying there on the ground! A man could wake up poor, take a stroll, and be a millionaire by suppertime if his pockets were big enough!" That was then. Two years later, you had to know how to dig. And you had to know where to dig. And then deeper. And for what. Via Aside InnovationBlog comes: MIT Tech-Edu
MIT Professors Study InnovationInnovation has become an all-purpose tonic, the default prescription for every pain associated with the retrenching American economy. Whatever the problem -- slower growth, global competition, fewer well-paying jobs -- innovating, we are told, is the solution.

Now a pair of MIT professors has dissected the practice of innovating and found it to be generally misunderstood. In "Innovation: The Missing Dimension", published by Harvard University Press in October, Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore argue that much of the innovation effort in American business goes into solving problems but relatively little into identifying possibilities and opportunities in the marketplace.

"We are in danger of learning the wrong lessons about innovation," Lester and Piore warn in the book. "As a result, we risk neglecting those capabilities that are the real wellsprings of creativity in the US economy -- the capacity to integrate across organizational, intellectual, and cultural boundaries, the capacity to experiment, and the habits of thought that allow us to make sense of radically ambiguous situations and move forward in the face of uncertainty."
Haven't seen the book yet, but I like the sound of it.

Seems like it really is James Burke week here-- thinking about the future through the prism of the past and all that. Since we work (and proudly, fiercely so) with many companies that don't have the cash to bring in the big shovels like McKinsey, Accenture, IDEO et al, we help 'em learn how to dig for themselves. Hey, why should the big dogs have all the fun?

Having been both client and consultant on the innovation end, it's not a stretch to say that "thinking big" is a huge leap for many 'smaller' outfits. That's a tragedy. A big one. Too often, small companies do not give themselves credit enough to think they can be really great. Or, they think "innovation" has to come in a giant gilt box, accompanied by fireworks. And, that it requires a Brinks truck.

Ptosh. Money's over-rated. It makes you boring and lazy. It gives you excuses usually, and plausible deniability often. And maybe, a buffer downstream. Maybe. Just maybe. But what if you don't have cash? Yet, you have plenty of ambition? Mountains of it? Well, chances are, you've learned that if you don't have money, you'd better be brilliant in your poverty as we say around here. In this way, "small" is freeing and mid-cap is beautiful. Because you can think with your own brain, not the one your industry says you have to use. You can be yourself, not the persona that typical "industry-leader" or "premier-provider" -speak drives you to.


But, absent money, you have to think. Hard. And wide. And deep. But you gotta see the value in it. You gotta wanna. And sometimes, the only time we wanna is when we've gotta. When there's no other choice.

You are going to learn to hate this graph....

As the graphic says, sometimes we just get out of phase. We look to get all expansive and optimistic, simply because we're flush with cash, like those early miners, but not--key point--but not because we have a damn profound business model we love, and others--consumers and employees--also love, and therefore deserves to have millions and billions sunk into it.

'Lipstick on a pig' is the term, I believe.

Strange but true fact: In business, money is wallpaper and excuse. We argue over cost-per-copy on those 50 new laser printers costing the organization, say, $75,000 in acquisition, plus $75,000 in consumables per annum. But we wizards in the boardroom choose to move the HQ across town because we saw somebody else's building that fronted a lake--with ducks! Why are we moving? Because our peple can't stop fighting with each other. Isn't it obvious? We need a new building.

Don't laugh. That's a real example. Hey, it happens. We forget why we do what we do, and what's important and neat about who we are. As one of those famous McKinsey guys, Kenichi Ohmae, has said:
Most people in big companies have forgotten how to invent. they know how to buy and sell businesses and produce me-too products... They're too worried about competition and market share and profitability figures.
Guys like Kaiser Permanente need to have IDEO come in and remind them that -- gee whiz -- they're in the compassion business, not "healthcare delivery." Krispy Kreme has a true "software" IPO, and forgets that it is sinfully delicious, fresh, warm glazed doughnuts that are what they do. Instead, they start reading the financial pages. Next thing you know the boss is front page news for sugar-coating quarterly numbers. There are all kinds of implications from the above kind of a-phasic, arythmic dilemma. Enthusiasm is the first victim. Then we begin shopping for an "appropriate" identity. (This is where I usually meet business-people.) Roles take the place of resourcefulness and willingness. Opportunity--"what if"--gets defined as a "distraction." Mistakes get amplified way out proportion. Competitors seem more capable than they really are. We feel more surrounded, clueless and inept than we really should. The chips just aren't falling, the "sky" is, and people are eyeballing the exits. And you can smell the anxiety in the air. ..
One of the cruelest things about organizations today is that they hold executives to standards of rationality, clarity, and foresight that are unobtainable. Most leaders can't meet such standards because they're only human, facing a huge amount of unpredictability and all the fallible analyses that we have in this world. Unfortunately, the result is that many executives feel they just can't measure up. That triggers a vicious psychological circle: Managers have rotten experiences because they keep coming up short, which reinforces low self-esteem. In the end, they get completely demoralized and don't contribute what they actually could - and otherwise would.

Karl E. Weick,
University of Michigan Business School at Ann Arbor
Managing the Unexpected (2001)

Okay, there's not much you do about "standards of rationality." There are some clearheaded people in this world, and then there are some who call the fire department if you turn the lights out.

But "clarity, and foresight that are unobtainable"? No. Wrong. At least, as presented.

If I can be so presumptuous, and I'm way out of my league, here--but Karl, you are wrong on this small part --- even a 10% improvement in the context of our work, our central purpose, yields large benefit. Clarity is not simplicity or perfection, just a better understanding of the cycles of our businesses.

And it's not about ducks. More on this later.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

James Burke Week? A reprise:

In comments, Mike Dewitt wonders how many bloggers are fans of the old "Connections" series. He reckons "a lot." Count me in. One from the wayback machine...

Old technology never dies, it just fades away. Into cool rubble.
I photograph modern ruins because I find it disturbing to find familiar objects and technology to be abandoned. I'm reminded that nothing is permanent, that everything is always in a state of transition. And we see ourselves in our own transitions, sometimes too focused on where we're going to notice and appreciate where we are.

--Phillip Buehler
Or, where we've been

Modern Ruins is the site of photographer Phillip Buehler. I share his fascination with old tech left to rot, with the elephant's graveyards of progress. If you went to the 1964 New York World's Fair (as Buehler had as a kid), you'll find its old and current state portrayed here. Ditto, Ellis Island, Coney Island, old NASA launch sites, factories, aircraft graveyards etc.

Any fans of James Burke's Connections series (The original 10-parter is the ONLY one to watch) will remember the episode Countdown. As a prologue to the next and final episode, it ends with a poignant tour of the old Apollo launch site. Besides the then uncommon use of Carmina Burina as a sound bed (it was made in 1978), the writer walks through all the blow-torched and scrapped gantrys and left overs from that prodigious, exciting time as he asks an interesting question.

To paraphrase, Once the excitement of new ventures like the space program--or any venture, for that matter--winds down, what happens to the knowledge and lessons of what we've passed through and achieved?

I loved that question when I heard it as a 16-year old and it's been a driver for me ever since. Does a culture and a system where obsolescence is accelerated by a stuctural, economic neccessity for "new and improved" leave us with a gap in our cultural memory? Does this willful gap cause us to miss ideas and opportunities that are latent or right under our nose? Do we get unnecessarily spooked into reactive and possibly destrucutive gestures when the "old" is presented as new and threatening? Perhaps the cult of the new ignores the contributions of the past, to all our detriment.

Imagine the foreshortened way we regard events today. The Walmart question, discussed elsewhere on this site, seems for many a New problem. Yet, anyone with a historical memory recalls a collossus like once-great Sears dwarfing it's next 5 competitiors combined. Or an A&P, similarly huge and scary, now an also ran. Or, take the challenges of war or political candidacies: each event or individual tracks remarkably with situations or people of the past, yet we're shocked, shocked when we "find there's gambling going on here."

Things like media coverage of Iraq or Michael Jackson or Laci Peterson or Elizabeth Smart cause seemingly well-informed people to shake their heads and lament the decline of culure or modern media. The only problem is, this conclusion ignores the fact of say, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or The Lindbergh Trial, or the Donner Party or whatever. The latter, about national security, kidnapping and death of an infant, and mass cannibalism and family tragedy were media supernova of their time. Papers couldn't print updates fast enough and people could speak of nothing else. Speculation and presumptions of guilt or innocence ran rampant. People spoke out of the top of their hats just to be saying something. Jibber-jabber. Just like, oh, I dunno NYT, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Rush/Talk-Radio et al do today.

Non-warranteed certitude is not a new product. That's just the way people are. Stories, archetypal stories, engage the mind like no other. Their mythical character and plot make them appeal to huge segments of people, but their conclusions and lessons can vary wildly in some cases because each is treated as a new lesson, not a repeat and an enhancement. And in this kind of a-historical context, we struggle wildy for meaning and understanding.

The result?
"I abolutely, positively have an opinion on this, that or the other. Just don't ask me 'why'"?
As Phillip sagely notes above, we're sometimes too focused on where we're going to notice and appreciate where we are. Indeed. Or, how we got here.

[reposted from 11.24.03]

Monday, January 24, 2005

Well lookee here: Heat, but no light. Nokia CEO voices concern about U.S. mores
HELSINKI, Finland (AP) - The head of Nokia - the world's largest mobile phone maker - expressed concern Sunday about disintegrating values in society and an apparent resurgence in conservative attitudes in the United States.

Nokia's chief executive, Jorma Ollila, said in a rare television interview that the world is living in "an era of selfishness" very different from his childhood days in a small town in central Finland, when family values were of prime importance.

"Put in a nicer way, it is an era of individualism. This is a very self-centered period, which also has plenty of good features too because, when understood correctly, it can help you live independently and stand on one's own two feet," Ollila, 54, said in a candid interview broadcast on state-run YLE television.

Speaking with Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen, a personal friend, Ollila said he thinks people are more concerned about individual rights than taking responsibility for their actions and trying to have a positive influence on society.

"What I'm worried about is that if this disintegration of values continues and develops further, we'll get a conservative counter-reaction precisely like what has actually happened in the USA," he said.
Let's hope Saarinen took him aside after tthe interview and explained things like Segmentation, niche and micromarketing. Maybe while he was at it, perhaps things like the spin-off of "underperforming" divisions to offshore markets. Finally, maybe he asked Ollila what he thought about the fact that guys like he and Branson, Welch and Trump are superstars, yet we see very few scout leaders or teachers on the cover of Forbes or Fortue when it comes time to talk about "Success" or Leadership.

That is the thing that stings. Business leaders insist on claiming fealty to the idea of values, family values and the social fabric. Then decouple their actions from execution on the central principles of these beliefs. Corporate Mission is a mantra. But if you menton Corporate Conscience or consequence to them, they'll tilt their head sideways as though someone just suggested washing a car with a fish.

Jorma Ollila makes cell phones and digital devices. Those devices allow––make easy, promote––the ability of families and communities to be farther and farher apart from each other. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but distance creates, well, it creates distance. I can't sense you or feel you. We are together, yet apart. That has consequences. Technology always does. An example:

Ever thought much about the fireplace and chimney? Nice and cozy aren't they. Hearth and Home and what-not. Guess what. You can credit the fireplace for many things besides heat and cooking.

A Design: The Fireplace + Chimney

A medieval development based on utility: How do we stop burning down structures when we heat and cook in dwellings?

[R]evolutionary result: Before, servant and master gathered, ate and slept around a communal fire in a Great Room, vented through a big hole in the ceiling. Brrrr. Grrrr.

Now, spaces could be subdivided, with their own heat sources. Second floors could be added, bringing stairs into the home. Heat rises. So did the owner. He moved upstairs and "physical" class division begins. The new privacy and comfort afforded the privileged allows for more frequent bathing and personal care--quiet time--which in turn heralds the idea and practice of "romantic" love.

Oversimplified, yes, but that's the nub of it.

Imagine other consequences of heat on demand. You can add in the fact that inkpots didn't freeze in the winters anymore, nor did water clocks. So business and order could be maintained year round, round the clock. Yippee!

Now update the model: What are the converse effects of a thing like a fax or a cell phone or email? Who knows, maybe one symptom of the disconnect are blogs. Perhaps they're the new digital hearth? Your call.

Either way, let's hope that Saarinen grabbed Jorma Ollila by the ear and dragged him into the next room––then told him how silly, how decoupled from reality he is; how his business may, just may, in some ways enable and exalt that which he laments. Shared values need practice and proximity, and consistent application across all strata. Otherwise, they're just brochure copy and only serve to highlight the disconnect between people and practice.

How needs why, as mentioned in the previous post. Jorma seems to have forgotten it's not a principle unless it costs you somethng, even it's just the pain of self-awareness. Jorma seems not to know his "Why?".

{A nod to growing up with National Geographic and James Burke on the BBC for some of the above.]

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Neocon: Why Patriot Batteries make for better Inaugurations

LA Times
Bush Pulls 'Neocons' Out of the Shadows
WASHINGTON — In the unending struggle over American foreign policy that consumes much of official Washington, one side claimed a victory this week: the neoconservatives, that determined band of hawkish idealists who promoted the U.S. invasion of Iraq (news - web sites) and now seek to bring democracy to the rest of the Middle East.

For more than a year, since the occupation of Iraq turned into the Bush administration's biggest headache, many of the "neocons" have lowered their profiles and muted their rhetoric. During President Bush (news - web sites)'s reelection campaign, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the leading voices for invading Iraq, virtually disappeared from public view.

But on Thursday, Bush proclaimed in his inaugural address that the central purpose of his second term would be the promotion of democracy "in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" — a key neoconservative goal. Suddenly, the neocons were ascendant again.

"This is real neoconservatism," said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar who has been a leading exponent of neocon thinking — and who sometimes has criticized the administration for not being neocon enough. "It would be hard to express it more clearly. If people were expecting Bush to rein in his ambitions and enthusiasms after the first term, they are discovering that they were wrong."

On the other side of the Republican foreign policy divide, a leading "realist" — an exponent of the view that promoting democracy is nice, but not the central goal of U.S. foreign policy — agreed.

"If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a conservative think tank that reveres the less idealistic policies of Richard Nixon. "I hope and pray that he didn't mean it … [and] that it was merely an inspirational speech, not practical guidance for the conduct of foreign policy."
Hope and pray, Dimitri? Faith-based hunches, wild-assed guesses, cosmic assertions and unicorns are already the M.O. of neocons. And they have one half of your party Dimitri. The half that writes the checks and pulls the trigger. You may insist on wishing upon a star but the rest of us, seemingly including those who've recently bailed for the administration, well, we're done rolling our eyes or lifting them to Heaven. It's time to get a net.


Up until Thrursday, I'd honestly figured that guys like Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and Kagan merely knew which hot buttons to push when it came to our recovering Sophomore-in-Chief. And in turn, Bush needed them and their "seriousness" to cover his un-. As for being a Neocon, George W. Bush is an accidental one, the way you get on a bus to Cleveland instead of Cincinatti thinking only "C" and Ohio. Dubya wouldn't know Leo Strauss, the Neocon Moses, from the guy who invented rivet-pocket dungarees. And he's not alone. But Dubya has shifted, not surprisingly as all second-termers do, into full-blown "Legacy-mode," and his prompters, those wonderful folks who talk big but now have events like 9-11, Phantom WMDs and outed CIA agents and pyraminds of nekkid Iraqis on their resumes, well, they're feeling pretty good about themselves as the soaring New American Patriots, despite the facts on the ground.

How'd we get here? Bush 43 was once merely enamored of the high flying "American idealism" if the folk at the Project for a New American Century and/or the American Enterprise Institute. Well, now he's married to them, in an Iraqi shotgun wedding. You dance with who brung ya, they say. And you don't criticize her dress. Or the offspring. With Thursday's speech, and with covert ops wandering the western countryside in Iran, he's allowed that spotty, brittle PNAC and AEI idealism to mutate into an American Ideal for the world: One size, one metric fits all--Ours. Sure, administration flacks are back-pedalling furiously, but foreign leaders, even the friendly ones, now smell "Rome." Or a straight-laced Caligula. Too late. You had your chance, you ate your cheese or said "Righto!" Doesn't matter where you lined up now. The Nico-Manicheans are here. They have Biblical hormones, righteous zeal and a 3% "mandate." And JDAMS and K-Street. And a woody for straightening out, "enlightening," their lessers. They're a group, and an ideology, in a hurry. Partly because they think this is their moment. And mostly because, they too, want to prove they "matter" in the Grand Continuum., that they are movers and shakers.

Sound pretty certain, don't I? Certainly am. After umpty-ump years of studying, helping, working with and for Architects, CEOs, Developers, Small Business owners, some politicians and other leaders and builders of things, a mental image came to mind. So I made it real a few years ago, and it sits up in the right hand corner of this blog. It's there to remind *me* to look for the deeper consequences of the requests and actions of the leaders I often find myself working for. And, to remind me to follow not just the money but, the ambition too. Where does it come from? And why? What are you really trying to achieve, and why? And most importantly, for Who? Honestly: for Who? It's an important question that needs answering because many of us are good at answering "How we do X." Many of us have no clue why. And when it comes to generating compelling, broad and serviceable rationales and plans "How? needs "Why?" Otherwise we fall in love with our ideas and missions, and others forget or ignore them and Us. And we die a bridesmaid. But "Why?" without "How?" also leaves us feeling cheated, jilted--all fired up, raring to go, but with no map, no markers, no practical tools to get there effectively.

Go. Effectively. Those are the core of a wise mission and a sustainable competitive advantage. They're also, in metaphorical terms, the implicit purpose in Jim Collins' fine analogy about "being on the bus." With a company, I can stay or leave. I can find other leaders and opportunities that match my ambition at any time, even if it means a pay cut. With my country, I cannot. Sometimes it's an express coach, sometimes a welcome wagon. This time, its a steamroller. For four more years, a lifetime in "9-11 time" I am chained to an ambition I understand, but do not respect professionally or personally. This disrespect comes not from politics, but from people experience. (And, in my view, we are far more alike than we allow ourselves to believe. Thoughts, fears, hopes and questions. Different words maybe, different affectations, but the same once the Kabuki of class and race and role falls away.)

This ambition, his ambition, their ambition, is a destructive, self-interested and myopic one. It is theirs, not mine. And, I suspect if many gave it deeper thought, they'd reach the same conclusion. But paying attention or not, its vortex will make large casualties of innocent bystanders--already has, in lives and national reputation and opportunity. Fear of irrelevance, fear of failure, mirrored in Prideful certitude does that to some, high and low, Turbaned, or not. It separates how from why, depending on whatever needs justifying at the moment. Meaning becomes unmoored from act. Self-image trumps true self-interest. Fear of uncertainty, suspicion of of patience and calm confidence makes fools of many smart people, and fills SEC dockets, newspaper headlines. Or cemetaries.

So here's where Bush's legacy-factor is the slingshot to Neocon willfulness: More, faster, now! Raging and reactive narcissism. That's it. That's all. Foreign policy is the excuse and the device. Social Security Crisis? Fuhgeddaboudit. Hearts and minds are beside the point. You are the tools, or the obstacle. Fine. That's my read, my opinion. But I'm not the only certain one. We've been on these wild-eyed, legacy-fired missions before. Rather, the world has. And, having been through them far more often, on the dealing and receiving end, they know these things do not end well, historically speaking. The record of "enlightenment" by force and bluster, piety and destiny-speak, rather than by simple spadework and plodding, practical example speaks for itself. Stamina wins. Speed kills. SPQR.

One of the most popular Googled, and email-referral-ed posts around these parts is one scribbled last January. It tries to tackle and explain with some depth and, hopefully, some humor, what the hell a neocon is exactly. Who are they, why are they, where did they come from and what do they want? And, how is it they manage to do and say all kinds of incredibly stupid shit and still can hold an air of "competence" in the media and power firmament?

In fact, Thursday's Inaugural Address made me recall a certain snippet:
...In Bush's neo-vetted and -scripted platitudes about America's role of freedom and democracy bringer to the world, he sounds like a giddy sophomore who believes with all his soul that if people would just listen people would all hear wisdom and reform their silly selves.

And it was quaint when we heard Rodney King say it. We expect fuzzy thinking from habitual offenders and college students. Difficult to take from the "Fuzzy Math" President.
Seems it's kept it's relevance these last 12 months, and if headlines are guide, the world agrees. If you're so inclined, pack a lunch and your tinfoil hat, it's a fouro special

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